I’m sometimes surprised when I find that new writers have decided to tackle a novel, and often it seems a series, as their first publishable work. That’s not to say that it’s not possible, or even not advisable, but I think that there is a key tool in the development of a writer’s skills that is often overlooked – the short story.
What is a short story? It can sometimes be difficult to define a one based on word count alone, although many publication that accept them do so. (My own publication, Blood & Bourbon, likes them to be quite short, 2500 words or less) The best definition I have found, though, is not based on word count at all. Edgar Allen Poe said that a short story was one that could be read in a single sitting. Perhaps our shortening attention spans are the reason for the new prevalence of flash fiction.
Much as it would seem odd for a painter’s first canvas to be a billboard, or a carpenter’s first project to be a house, there is a real benefit from tackling smaller projects first. Writing is a craft, and there are many different tools that a writer should master to be able to effectively tell a story. Not all of these tools, or the effects they create, will necessarily fit within one story, no matter the length. The simplest way to practice a broad set of skills is through the creation of multiple short stories. In this manner one can practice different points of view, different styles of language, and different narrative devices.
A well-constructed short story is akin to a bonsai tree rather than a branch or mere cutting. It should incorporate all of the same elements one would find in a larger work, such as a novel, except only smaller. One of the problems that a writer must overcome is to tell a story in a satisfying way, and by this I mean that all the different elements and components of the story must work in harmony with each other. This is not necessarily simpler in a short story than in a novel, but certainly the time expended and the consequences of failure are much less with a short story.
Many of the most respected writers of the 20thcentury wrote short stories for popular conception, even once they had been established as novelists. Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, Jack London, William Faulkner, and many others.
And so, my advice to writers when they are still learning the basics of the craft, when they’re stuck on something in their current project, when they want to try something new, or they want to hone their skills with a particular element of storytelling, is to write a short story. Doing it well is harder than many might suspect, but the potential rewards are much greater than the sum of the time spent.
(And if you write a great short story, consider submitting to Blood & Bourbon!)
3 thoughts on “In Support of the Short Story”
good article, I bookmarked you, I’ll be coming back–one thing, there are many novelists who couldn’t go the other way round, couldn’t write a significant short story, the form is difficult, I believe, to master… the novel gives more space to explore themes and characters, and maybe is looser, more operatic than the short story… I really believe when you get to meaning the short story is very difficult, the novel is unwieldy broader. Hard for an abstract expressionist to practice on the back of a notecard
Thanks, Ty – and your point about the short story being a different art form is a very good one. They are not easier to write because they are shorter, that’s for certain. But I do see writing as a craft, and to sustain a high level of craftsmanship over 80-120K words is a tall order for anyone, much less someone who is still working on the basics. Not impossible, but difficult. And so I wonder about writers who set out to write an epic trilogy for their first piece of work, and then either become discouraged because they don’t finish the work, or do finish it and then find it either unreadable or unsellable. For those writers, my suggestion is simply to consider using the short story as a means to practice and hone their craft. It would seem that a lot of people want to jump to writing that epic best seller, without thinking about how their chances of success improve when they get their “10,000 hours” first. I get the sense that this is not an entirely popular opinion, but rather than telling people how to write, I just mean to make an observation to help those who are stuck.